On August 21, 2023 the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un publicly reprimanded the Prime MinisterKim Tok-hun for his irresponsibility in failing to prevent the harm caused to the country’s agricultural land by the recent Typhoon Khanun.
Kim’s comments came as he directed flood recovery work at the Ansok salt marshes in South Pyongan Province. The Great Leader’s personal visit was a response to an emergency: a dam burst, causing a large area of poorly drained land, including rice paddies, to be flooded with seawater.
The situation really did appear to be a disaster, and as part of the response Kim Jong-un was photographed standing knee-deep in water, without wading boots or other protective gear, guiding the recovery effort. In a situation of that kind many people are likely to get wet, and as a result angry, and the leader of the DPRK literally went on a rampage, criticizing workers in all sectors and, without sparing his language, gave his views on the reasons for the disaster, which are as follows:
- When constructing a drainage system at the dam, the South Pyongan Province Salt Marsh Reclamation Authority did not use proper work methods and performed the work poorly, without having a state construction permit and without supervision by construction inspectors. What is more, before the burst occurred they had found that there was a crack in the dam, but failed to take action. Of course, there were problems with the actual work done at the grassroots level, but the fact is that the Cabinet was completely unaware that the Salt Marsh Reclamation Authority had authorized the construction on its own initiative, and that the work had been a botch job. The whole situation is a fine example of how prone the administrative chain of command is to failure. This incident reveals that the Cabinet has entirely failed to perform its administrative and management functions properly.
- When Kim received a report on the flooding, several days ago, he dispatched secretaries from the Party Central Committee to supervise the recovery work in person and made arrangements to mobilize the army. However, the responsible officials from the Cabinet, ministries and central state agencies failed to travel to the scene and view the damage in person. The Prime Minister made a cursory visit to the site, and his main action consisted in sending his deputy, who behaved like a classic bureaucrat from political cartoons (the official North Korean text uses somewhat stronger expressions). What is more, the head of the Salt Marsh Reclamation Authority, who was supposed to personally supervise the restoration work, first stated announced that there was nothing for him to do there and that he needed to return to his office, and then after he was criticized for his attitude, pointlessly stayed in his office and even concealed a large amount of fuel that had been provided by the state for the construction of the drainage sluice. “The chief perpetrators of serious damage are all unfit, and they actions are conscious sabotage, which they committed without showing the slightest remorse or showing the slightest will to carry out their responsibilities, as is their duty.”
- Recently, in connection with the flooding of farmland in another county, Kim had warned those responsible to “take effective measures to prevent damage on a nationwide scale” and had “severely criticized the irresponsible approach of the government’s leading cadres and peripheral administrative staff to their work, but they had remained obdurate. “They are shamelessly and arrogantly taking the position that this time too the army will deal with the situation, and that this is the army’s job.”
- “A proper work system was not established within the Cabinet and incompetent officials were appointed, and these people did not do their jobs and failed to guide their subordinate departments properly.” As a result, “in recent years the administrative and economic discipline of the Cabinet has got progressively worse, and, consequently, the idlers are spoiling all the state’s economic projects with their irresponsible approach to work.” The Cabinet just gives instructions, and much of the blame for the consequences is to be laid at the feet of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which is responsible for the political and party leadership of the state’s economic activities and economic bodies.
The Prime Minister himself tried to evade responsibility by “pointing out that the area of paddy fields in the Ansok salt marshes belongs to a military unit stationed in that region and that this area is not included in the state grain production plan for this year, and then he left the recovery work almost entirely to the army.” Such thoughts and conduct are inappropriate for a Prime Minister who heads the country’s economic hierarchy and is responsible for the lives of the people.
- Kim concluded by saying that the damage “is not a calamity caused by a natural disaster, but a man-made calamity caused by the irresponsibility and indiscipline of idlers.” It is therefore “impossible in any circumstances to pardon politically immature persons who are unable to march in step with the mandates of the Party’s Central Committee, half-wits who fail to treat a warning as warning, bureaucrats who fail to value people’s lives and property, and people who betray their duty to the Party and the Revolution.” Kim therefore ordered the Organizational Leadership Department and the Discipline Inspection Department of the Party’s Central Committee, the State Inspection Commission and the Central Public Prosecutors Office to identify out the responsible bodies and individuals and punish them harshly in accordance with Party rules and legal procedures.
Finally, Kim Jong-un called for an “examination of the irresponsible work attitude and ideological viewpoint of the Prime Minister to be carried out by the Party”, and instructed the Committee for Overseeing Party Discipline to consider the issue of expelling from the Party the director of the Salt Marsh Reclamation Authority, who has acted negligently. In-depth investigations have also been launched into the work of the Salt Marsh Reclamation Authority, the Ministry for State Construction Supervision, the South Pyongan Province Salt Marsh Reclamation Authority, the Nampho Municipal Land and Environment Protection Management Bureau and the Nampho Municipal Construction Supervisory Bureau.
As for all the other persons involved, Kim Jong-un “once again warned about disobeying or disregarding the orders and instructions of the Party and the Government, and about the quiet and lazy work style of certain poorly-qualified leaders who ignore any work that is directly within their remit, despite the onset of calamity in the country, and stressed the need, above all, to reform the ideological and moral state of officials who are steeped in defeatism and self-protection and establish a work ethic in which everyone submits to a unified discipline and participates in state projects as befits a master.”
Kim’s criticisms were so harsh that the first foreign translations departed from the original in many places, and this was an important speech. Although Kim tends to use very blunt and uncompromising debriefing language in private, this is the first time that this kind of rhetoric has appeared in the public arena.
Nevertheless, there were no advance signs of any problem. On August 18 Kim Jong-un went to the site of the flooding to lead the work of repairing the damage from the typhoon, and Kim Dok-hun was among the team accompanying him. At that time there was no sign of any angry words.
Naturally, the Western and South Korean experts on the DPRK have already jumped to conclusions. When a person has a fixed idea of North Korea as an evil empire, which for the last 20 years of its existence has been on the brink of collapse, then any event can be made to fit into this interpretation. In the present case, the pages of the South Korean newspapers were full of articles explaining that Kim Jong-un, seeing his country once again on the verge of starvation, was taking out his anger on the Prime Minister.
Thus, an official of South Korea’s unification ministry said, on condition of anonymity, that Kim “appears to be blaming the Cabinet for a difficult economic situation that was caused by poor policy decisions, including the sanctions imposed in response to his nuclear program, and the border closures.” “The North Korean leader’s harsh remarks came at a time when the country is facing economic hardship and chronic food shortages, exacerbated by prolonged global sanctions and the strict quarantine measures on its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
According to other analysts, “a bloody purge of high-ranking officials in North Korea seems inevitable as dictator Kim Jong-un searches for scapegoats in the face of the country’s worsening food crisis.” Oh Gyeong-seob, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said that “ to judge by the extent of Kim Jong-un’s criticisms and anger,” at the very least, several officials responsible for the economy, particularly the management of food production, could be executed or sent to political prison camps, and Kim Dok-hun is already under investigation.
According to another expert, Cho Han-bum, the fate of Kim Tok-hun might have been determined from the very beginning, given the international sanctions, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the limited power of North Korea’s Cabinet in terms of policymaking. “Kim Jong-un appears to have tried to shift the blame on the powerless Cabinet … The photos of him giving orders in a flooded rice paddy seem to be a PR stunt aimed at projecting his image as a leader in contrast to the inept Cabinet.” After all “as everyone knows, the testimony of refugees from North Korea has made it clear that the food shortage there has been getting worse, and has reached the worst levels in over 20 years”. He concludes: “The strong criticism of Kim Tok-hun and the Cabinet appears to be part of a strategy to achieve a political breakthrough by victimizing scapegoats and enforcing a reign of terror in the face of the worst crisis seen since Kim Jong-un rose to power… But the North Korean elite and ordinary citizens are aware that Kim Tok-hun and the Cabinet were powerless from the beginning…”.
Kim can also be presented as a manager of the economy, rather than as a Party leader. The relatively young Kim Dok Hun (he was born in 1981) previously worked as director of a mechanical plant, and on April 11, 2019, he was became a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and head of the Personnel Department. In April 2020, he became head of the Budget Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
On August 13, 2020, Kim Jong-un appointed him as chairman of the DPRK’s Cabinet of Ministers and later as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. And when, during the funeral of Hyon Chol-hae, Kim Dok-hun and Kim Jong-un carried the coffin side by side, Pyongyangologists began to consider him the second most important official in the country, after the Great Leader.
Other South Korean experts, citing Kim’s criticism of the cabinet and praise of the military (and his suggestions that civilians should take an example from them), suggest that a “strongman” or even “Songun 2.0 ” approach to politics is gaining ground in the government.
But the Prime Minister has only been gave up: on August 25 Kim Dok-hun sent a message of congratulations to the new Prime Minister of Thailand, Srettha Thavisin, and on September 3 he sent a telegram congratulating Pham Minh Chinh, Prime Minister of Vietnam. Since other senior members of North Korea’s government have also stayed out of the news, it is impossible to say that Kim Dok-hun is now a political pariah. On the other hand, sending telegrams is not a public activity, and experts have noted that in a recent news bulletin Kim Dok-hun was named as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and head of the Cabinet. This may be a sign that he has been stripped of his status as deputy chairman of the State Council as a punishment.
Moreover, on August 31, the Standing Committee of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) resolved to hold the ninth session of the Assembly in Pyongyang on September 26. Deputies will approve a number of laws, but “organizational matters” are likely to be the preserve of Kim Dok-hun.
It is clear that many see the DPRK as an authoritarian dictatorship in which the Supreme Leader can have anyone shot for any offense, but the last act of public repression was the execution of Jang Song-thaek, who, at the time, was considered the second most powerful official in the country. However, there is indirect evidence to suggest that Jang was executed for creating a power clique, albeit one based on corruption rather than on political ambitions. In addition, Jang’s Chinese associates, to whom he had sold resources at below-the-market prices in return for astronomical kickbacks, probably also played a role in his downfall.
However, there have been no reprisals since Jang, although those who have failed to carry out the tasks entrusted to them or in whose department serious violations have been identified periodically find themselves disgraced. An official may be demoted but has a chance to get his job back in future if he behaves in a competent manner and wins the trust of his bosses. It is enough to cite the case Pak Jong-chon, who was stripped of his position as vice chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission at the end of 2022, but has recently reappeared among North Korea’s ruling elite.
The author will now try to explain why, in his view, the fallout of the flooding is so significant in terms of the insights it can give us into the modern political culture of the DPRK. The incident demonstrates that North Korea’s hierarchical and administrative system is far from perfect, but neither does it correspond to the “red” stereotype (all civil servants are like the ones in propaganda posters) or the “black” stereotype (the fish is rotten all the way to the head).
From what we can gather, there were two reasons for Kim Jong-un’s anger. Firstly, he extremely angry at the attitude of middle- and lower-level party cadres to their duties, when he himself pushes himself to the limit. He repeatedly calls on civil servants and party functionaries not to be incompetent idlers, drawing attention to the conduct of party cadres and whether or not they resolve problems and pay attention to the needs of the general public, and insisting, quite rightly, that the people will not respect or support incompetent bureaucrats.
Secondly, he has repeatedly demanded that the Cabinet take responsibility for all economic activity. And now it appears that laziness and infighting extend to that body, and that its officials, right up to the Prime Minister, are trying to evade responsibility, claiming that since the flooded territory was attached to a military unit, it is the responsibility of the army and not the Cabinet. And this is precisely the attitude that Kim Jong-un has sought to eliminate at every level. So, the Prime Minister got into trouble, not because of his personal mistakes, but because a of his staff lacked commitment and failed to think processes through properly.
However, we should also take a look at the issue of state repression under Kim Jong-un’s administration is. Although he criticized the Cabinet and its subordinate bodies for their lack of responsibility and discipline, he did not accuse these structures of deliberate sabotage. In other totalitarian systems, in which the cadre workers are assumed to be ideal and flawless servants of the state, any instances of human error are generally blamed, not on laziness or ignorance, but on the desire to deliberately harm the country, and the perpetrator is assumed to be a counter-revolutionary or a “Polish-Japanese spy”.
What is more, instead of dismissing the Prime Minister and having him put in chains on the spot (as a dictator of an evil regime might be expected to do) Kim demanded that he be investigated by the Party, without adding “I bet he’ll turn out to be a slacker”, and called for the people actually responsible to be disciplined by the appropriate authorities – and note that it is the appropriate authorities, not the Supreme Leader, who is responsible, after studying the circumstances, for determining whether they are guilty and what the penalty should be.
If we look at Kim Jon-un’s response in terms of Max Weber’s three types of authority, it appears that he is leading North Korea from a charismatic to a legal-rational system, with signs of an emerging North Korean version of glasnost.
Although the final decision on the Prime Minister’s fate will have to wait until the next session of the SNC, the present author is confident that Kim Dok-hun’s current fall from favor does not mean that we will never hear about him again, his name will disappear from news footage and that any economic woes will be publicly blamed on the treachery of this “thrice-accused wretch”.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” .